A Simple X-Ray by Robert MacLeod, Curator – Form of Absence: Radiographs | Paintings | Reliquaries

With A Simple X-Ray MacLeod introduces the work, its inherent contradictions and its relationship to source materials.

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A simple X-ray
Too often, a simple X-ray
makes militant atheists pray.
Volodymyr Knyr, 2014

Duck and Cover

You have seen the films or perhaps even recall being shuffled from your elementary school classroom into the hallway and being told to sit with your back to the wall, crouched, head between legs, hands gripped behind your head. Duck and cover. The image is one of a timeless cold war posture, seeking naïve refuge in the atomic age. Offering comfort to children, and presumably, their parents through a convenient lie, for, as we well know, duck and cover is of little assistance as invisible particles of even a distant atomic event stealthily trace through the body, rearranging and disrupting molecular bonds.  X-ray as weapon.

And so my journey with the x-ray begins.

Examination

You know the moment:  An odd ache, a pain, an injury, followed by a medical examination. The subsequent journey to the radiologist:  she who will view, slice, reconstruct, and study your body through the sublime intrusion of the “soft” x-ray. The soft x-ray deftly distinguishes calcium dense bones from soft tissue; gaseous laden organs from fluids. Perhaps you move into the realm of computed tomography, the CT scan you have endured in a slightly surreal setting:  the deep tube, the hammering mechanics of the scanner, pulsing invisibleness through your torso; all this to the musical score of your choosing. The CT, a most architectural document, yields x-ray slices, corporeal cross sections of the bodily territory in question.

The x-ray as diagnostic tool is then re-tooled as the healing apparatus: radiation therapy targets bodily tumors with relative exactitude. Said areas succumb to lethal doses of x-rays while we mediate between renewal and disorder.

X-ray Vision

You might also recall the advertisement for x-ray glasses, as seen in the back of comic books, promising the ability to see the through skin to the bones of your hand. Or for the entrepreneurial, the ability to see through walls and bank vaults to the treasures lying therein; or for the naughty pubescent, the hope of peering through the clothes of one’s friends and neighbors. The X-ray co-opted as an instrument of voyeurism. And yet, x-ray vision is the thing of science fiction-fantasy for it allows the man of steel to observe robbers and fight crime. Or, perhaps, not such a fantasy. The x-ray peruses you and your baggage as you board the long flight home. X-ray as instrument of justice.

The x-ray is a chameleon, slipping between duties, real and imagined. It is the ability of the x-ray to mediate between the realms of restoration and affliction that offers a peculiar poetic dichotomy. Therein lies its liminality.

 The Liminal X-ray

The term “liminal” finds its origins in the Latin “limen”, meaning “threshold” (OED). I think of the x-ray, the radiograph, as a liminal moment. It forever captures a space and place in time. Although photographic, it is not a photograph, per se, but rather, a more intrusive, even sinister, document. The x-ray captures us, and the artifacts we document, in a deeply revealing manner, creating an inner self for even inanimate objects. Indeed, especially for inanimate objects. The radiograph brings the inanimate to life, offering a deep, complex spatial and material reading. It makes things more architectural, unveiling the tectonic life embedded in a seemingly conventional door, for instance. It demystifies the mystical and imbues heighten mystery to the day-to-day. The x-ray creates another history for it’s subjects; an internal, hidden and largely unknown history. It is a reading often void of explicit context, suddenly self-referential. The liminal allows us the luxury of being between two places; being no place and in both places.

 Form of Absence

The very title, “the form of absence”, denotes something of a ghostly intellectual oxymoron. It is and is not. Absence yields form, presence; absence is measured; absence is present through the forms captured in the often analytical process of discovery that is the essence of the exhibit. Absence is the hallmark of Paul Robinson’s work in the form of absence. He recreates through absence; makes place through implication, juxtaposition and the cogent mapping of ritual. It is the ritual of the place and instrument of his work; that is, the home and related artifacts of Slovene Architect Jože Plečnik (1872 – 1957), that gives form to absence. As I consider the work in form of absence, I find the act of reading, revealing and unveiling offers a deep introspective appraisal of each artifact.

 Thresholds

Janus is the Roman god of gates, doors, and passages; the god of thresholds and transitions. Typically depicted as a two-headed deity, looking, simultaneously, both forward and backward; Janus looks toward the future and into the past. Janus occupies that liminal joint between realms, between spaces. The first month of our calendar is January, an entre to a new year, a new beginning.

The moment that starts January, that threshold moment between years, that through which we measure our lives; that haunts us as we age; the years make experience, time, memory, loss, longing.  As Janus, we are able to “look back” having gained through our age, through our years, the ability / privilege / curse of so doing; indeed, after a time, we have more to look back upon than, perhaps, to look forward to. The shifting nature of liminal, that sublime suspended moment of betwixt.

The work in form of absence is situated in a Janusean hold; the radiographs simultaneously mask and reveal. We see the artifact as shadow and its internal structure as form. The provocative images decontextualize the artifacts they document, only to re-contextualize them through reassembly as a spatial construct. The pieces of the exhibit choreograph the works as a field of related elements; thematic musing on space and structure; on presence and absence.

Form of absence recalls the reliquary. We know the reliquary as both honorific shrine — a space charged by content — and a utilitarian container. In form of absence, the architecture of utility, the museum space holding the exhibit, serves as the first order of shrine-space; transformed by the presence of these ghostly artifacts…. hanging, standing, leaning, suspended…

As the room assumes the role of shrine, elements of study carefully embedded, we also see the constellation of artifacts, set within the space, recalling proximity as parts of a whole, as they once were in Ljubljana.

The House of Plečnik, reconstructed through juxtaposition and proximity, offers a series of thresholds, real and imagined, functional and spiritual. Indeed, it is said that few who visited Plečnik at his home ventured beyond the small receiving room just inside the first threshold, that of the front door. The receiving room, warmed by a wood burning stove and sparsely furnished with wooden chairs and table, housed conversation, consultations, and visits both brief and extended. This is the second of a series of simple architectural thresholds one incurs while navigating the modest house. To move beyond the receiving room, it seems, is to cross the threshold that defines Plečnik himself; an inner realm of work, contemplation, spirituality and ritual.

Plečnik is something of a Janusean figure, suspended between centuries and sensibilities. In bridging centuries, his architectural projects seems oddly (un)comfortable as expressions of mannerist, classical and modern works. One recalls the oft-quoted Walter Benjamin essay excerpt from “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (thesis IX) describing Paul Klee’s print Angelus Novus:

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

And so it seems both the Angel of History and Jože Plečnik are caught in a suspended liminal condition.

Angels

More speculative in the Plečnik’s house and Robinson’s form of absence is the threshold of the divine, as encountered through the various religious artifacts placed throughout the building. The angels are among the most provocative of the radiograph images in form of absence. While striking in person, the angels emerge with a rather appropriate otherworldliness as radiographs. There exists a cool ambiguity to the angel in x-ray form. The internal construction of the statuary is revealed, projecting, if anything, an even more human and more fragile inner form. There exists deep emotion in the angel images; even a sense of melancholy. The angel is of course a messenger of God, literally from the Latin “angelus”, and Greek “angelos” (OED). It is the angel as messenger of God, who perpetually inhabits the liminal space between Heaven and Earth. And it is the angel as messenger of God who inhabits form through absence in the guise of winged emissary awash in a carefully construed bath of light. Robinson’s angels, showered by a violent, invisible light, reveal an internal liminal being, forever in a state of revealed repose; forever in the form of absence.